The word "Ratha" stands for "chariot" and "Yatra" signifies "journey". Literally taken, Ratha Yatra means "chariot-ride". A major Hindu festival, Ratha Yatra is annually observed all over India. The festival, however, originated in Jagannath Puri on the eastern coast of the state of Orissa, India. Rathyatra is still celebrated here during the months of June or July (Rainy Season). The festival is associated with Lord Jagannath or Lord Krishna and commemorates his annual journey to his aunt's residence along with his brother and sister.
Lord Krishna is the eighth avatar (incarnation) of Lord Vishnu and the supreme God in Indian Hindu Mythology. Hence he is often worshipped as Jagannath. The name comes from the conjugation of two Sanskrit words - jagat (world) and natha (master). Hence, the word "Jagannath" means master (natha) of the world (jagat) and refers to Lord Krishna, who is held to be the Supreme God and creator of the Universe. It is traditionally believed that Lord Krishna appeared in his human form on earth in Dwapara yuga, on the midnight of the 8th day of the dark half of the month of Sravan of 3228 BC.
During his stay on earth, the lord performed many miraculous feats and asserted his divine identity. Lord Krishna was born to destroy the evil and protect the good. Once he declared that in Kal Yug(the age we presently live in) he would dwell in the seaside town of Puri, in the Indian state of Orissa. Therefore Puri is accepted by pious Hindus as the abode of Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe. A beautiful temple, the Jagannath temple, has long been built in the honour of the Lord.
The great sage Adi Shankaracharya I chose Puri as one of the Chaar Dham (four sacred abodes). The Char Dham is the most important Hindu pilgrimage circuit in the Indian Himalayas.The person who visits these four places is believed to attain moksha(salvation). Jagannath Puri is visited by thousands of pilgrims all the year round, but to be there at the time of the Ratha Yatra is regarded as holy as a visit to Hardwar and Kashi. That is why, elaborate arrangements are annually made by the state government and the local people on the onset of the Ratha Yatra celebrations. There are numerous dharmashalas and small hotels for the pilgrims, as well as five-star hotels.
The temple of Puri is dedicated to Lord Jagannath(Lord Krishna), his elder brother Balabhadra and their sister Subhadra. The Sudarshan Chakra (the main weapon of the Lord) also becomes a deity in its own right here. The temple is a majestic structure, 65 metres high and stands on an elevated platform in the heart of the city. It was built during the twelfth century A.D. in the Kalinga style.
Usually the deities are worshipped within the temple, but on the day of Ratha Yatra the idols of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and their sister Subhadra are transported to their aunt' s temple (Gundicha Mandir) which is situated at a distance of 2 km from their temple. Gundicha Ghar is supposed to be the home of the aunt of Lord Jagannath, who was the wife of King Indradyumna. This temple is located in the middle of a beautiful garden and is said to have derived its name from the name of Lord Krishna's aunt, Gundicha. But many believe that the temple has been named after the King Indradyumna, who was also known by the name ‘Gundicha’. This is because he was the one who laid the foundation for establishment of Gundicha Ghar. Gundicha Ghar is believed by many people to be the birthplace of Lord Jagannath. According to a legend, Lord Jagannath once expressed his desire to visit his birthplace Gundicha ghar once every year for a week. And so he did. Every year, along with his elder brother Balbhadra and younger sister Subhadra, Lord Jagannath spent seven days at this place.
The entire tradition of Rath Yatra (chariot journey) owes its origin to this ancient weekly sojourn of these deities. During the festival, the idols are taken through the streets of Puri on beautifully decorated wooden chariots resembling temple structures, so that everyone can have the fortune of seeing them. The journey ends at the Gundicha mandir where the idols of the deities are dismounted from the chariots and taken inside. After a week, the deities are returned back on chariots to their original abode, the Jagannath temple.